Kol Ha'Ir, October 11, 2002
[Translation by the Israel News Agency]
WHY ISRAEL'S IMAGE SUFFERS
Interview with GPO Director Danny Seaman
Danny Seaman knows exactly why the State of Israel looks so bad on television screens around the world.
"At the direct instruction of the Palestinian Authority," explains the director of the Government Press Office (GPO), "the offices of the foreign networks in Jerusalem are compelled to hire Palestinian directors and producers. Those people determine what is broadcast. The journalists will certainly deny that, but that is reality."
Q: What makes you so sure?
"A lot of sources that, if exposed, will be compromised professionally. Those are people who were outraged by the events in those offices."
Q: Which offices are we talking about?
"The most senior are the Associated Press and Reuters, which provide information to hundreds of millions of people around the world. On the second level are the major television networks, CNN and the BBC, and the American stations, ABC and CBS."
Seaman claims that the Palestinian workers at the various networks work with complete coordination. But that is nothing. "Three senior producers," alleges the GPO director with deep internal conviction, "were coordinated with Marwan Barghouti. He used to call them and inform them about what was about to happen. They always received early warning about gunfire on Gilo. Then they shot for TV only the Israeli response fire on Beit Jala. Those producers advised Barghouti how to get the Palestinian message across better."
Q: After the accusations give me some names.
"I'm not prepared to divulge details. Everyone who deals with this knows who they are."
In his professional capacity Seaman mediates between the foreign journalists and the various authorities in Israel. While the latter receive ample representation, the former are perceived as a rather bothersome nuisance. Seaman is not ashamed to admit it. He considers the foreign correspondents to be a bunch of spoiled brats that until now has received privileged conditions and has repaid that by giving back the finger. "They've grown accustomed to being treated very freely in Israel," said Seaman, "but the liberty that we gave them was abused."
Seaman, a civil servant, does not mince words when he describes the foreign media's conduct in Israel. He levels harsh accusations at the foreign correspondents, some of which sound rather odd. Not only are they entwined with the Palestinian Authority by means of a Gordian knot, but they also steal Israelis' livelihoods. But things here will be A.O.K soon enough. Seaman will set those gentiles straight.
Last week Ma'ariv reported that the GPO would issue press cards to foreign photographers and production staffers only if they obtained a work permit from the Labor and Welfare Ministry and a visa from the Interior Ministry. At stake is an old law that has never been enforced until now. It means that the number of foreign workers in offices in Israel is expected to be cut substantially. But even before Seaman decided to revoke the press cards from all the residents of the territories.
Officials at the news agencies and the networks find it very difficult to understand, or at least feign innocence, as to what exactly it is that Danny Seaman wants from them. Israelis, after all, are barred from entering the territories, say the office managers and, therefore, without foreign photographers and Palestinian reporters it is very difficult to work and perhaps even impossible. They reject with disdain Seaman's allegations about pro-Palestinian coverage. "I've had Palestinian workers for years already," says Charles Enderlin, the veteran France 2 TV correspondent, "and they have proven their professionalism. Regardless, there is no bureau chief who allows his Palestinian assistant to decide what is broadcast. I deny that allegation outright."
"We don't make the news, we only broadcast it," say the foreign journalists defensively. Quite a few of them feel, even if they won't say so explicitly, that someone who didn't like the message has decided to kill the messenger.
Seaman, 41, was born in Germany. His father was a member of the US Airforce, and his family followed him around across the world. In 1971 they immigrated to Israel and settled in Ashkelon. Seaman served in the paratroopers, and after his discharge studied political science in New York.
At the same time he also began to do public relations work for the Israeli consulate in New York. When he returned to Israel in 1990 he found work in the GPO. He spent two years with the IDF Spokesman's Office, and in January 2001 was appointed director of the GPO. "I am the first director who was not appointed for political reasons," he says proudly.
Seaman defines his job as "dual and restrictive. On the one hand, I need to represent the State of Israel and its interests to the foreign media, and on the other hand, I am supposed to represent the foreign reporters to the government and to create an appropriate media atmosphere for them. Sometimes the one role supersedes and other times the other does."
Q: Which is more dominant now?
"Today there is a greater need to look out for the State of Israel's interests because we are in an emergency situation."
The impression is that Israel has nothing to be concerned about, Seaman is doing his job. He always arrives at the scenes of the major terror attacks and tries to help the journalists gain access as quickly as possible to the material. Seaman has also made a point of attending Marwan Barghouti's trial. "The GPO is not covering the trial," he explains, "but it would be negligent were we not to capitalize on this event for public relations. Our job is to allow coverage." MK Ahmed Tibi, who also has used the trial for public relations purposes, is angry at Seaman. "Seaman's behavior in the court room is beyond the pale," says Tibi. "He asks the journalists to interview the families of terror victims. That is none of his business, that is an editor's job."
Seaman fought back: "Ahmed Tibi would be pleased were the State of Israel not to exist at all," says Seaman. "So he finds it jarring that the state is doing its job. I would urge him to learn to respect the courts before he comments to me about how to do my job."
Seaman has a clear understanding about how the Palestinians succeeded in seizing control of the television screens. He said that in the 1980s the Palestinians began to nurture young people who would work with the foreign press. He also alleges that all of the Palestinians who work with the media took a course in media manipulation at Bir Zeit University.
The effort paid off, if one is to believe Seaman. "For years," he explained, "the foreign reporters created a kind of romanticism surrounding the Palestinians' struggle. They adopted their point of view and their terminology." Seaman, who claims to be apolitical, said this process was exacerbated also by the "discourse in Israel. From the moment that the old Land of Israel lost the elections in 1977 the delegitimizing that was done to all the right wing leaders, Begin, Shamir, Netanyahu and Sharon, contributed to the struggle to delegitimize that the Palestinians launched in 1964."
Seaman is convinced that the foreign journalists were able to move about the territories freely and speak with whomever they wanted before Arafat's arrival. "From the moment Arafat arrived," explains Seaman, "their dependence on Palestinian media staffers grew. And the more the PA tightened its hold on the ground and the closer the date of the conflict grew, the Palestinian hold on the foreign press became firmer. Four years ago began the threats on the Israeli staffers, including Arabs from East Jerusalem.
The Palestinians let the foreign journalists understand: if you don't work with our people we'll sever contact with you, you won't have access to sources of information and you won't get interviews."
Seaman is certain that the overwhelming majority of the media bowed to this pressure. He is not prepared to give any credit to the Palestinian journalists who work in the foreign networks. "Today we know," Seaman says in a heated tone, "that the entire Mohammed a-Dura incident was staged in advance by the Palestinian Authority in collusion with Palestinian photographers, who worked for the foreign networks. In my opinion, that is the incident that really began the Intifada. Until then it hadn't caught on."
Palestinian stills photographers are also part of the game. "They always stage photographs," says Seaman unequivocally and states that he is prepared to be taken to court for libel. "The IDF announces that it is going in to demolish an empty house, but somehow afterwards you see a picture of a crying child sitting on the rubble. There is an economic level to that. The Palestinian photographers receive from the foreign agencies 300 dollars for good pictures; that is why they deliberately create provocation with the soldiers. They've degraded photography to prostitution." Seaman gives the foreign media a five on a scale of one to ten for its coverage of the events in the past two years. As noted, he believes that nearly all of them are infected. "They're hostile," he says, and itemizes: they being the French, the Spaniards, the BBC. The hostility manifests itself in the writing, the tendentious footage, the automatic adoption of the Palestinian version and the immediate suspicion of the Israeli version. In the course of the siege on Bethlehem the Palestinians claimed that we killed a monk. No one bothered to pick up the phone and speak to the Pope's representative to hear from him that nothing of the kind had happened."
Seaman has no problem harping on the Europeans' conscience. "I accuse," he says without a moment of hesitation, "particularly the European press. The correspondents reported about every slander against Israel as if it were a fact. The negligence of their coverage contributed to the anti-Semitism that is now making rounds on the continent, and that ought to lie heavily on their consciences." Four Western journalists received special attention from the GPO.
Actually, at issue was a lack of attention. Seaman has no problem naming names: Suzanne Goldberg from the British Guardian, Lee Hockstader from the Washington Post, Sandro Contenta from the Toronto Star and Gillian Findlay from ABC. Seaman accuses each one of the four of inaccurate reporting, to understate things. Now, none of the four are in Israel any longer. "We simply boycotted them," recounts Seaman. "We didn't revoke their press cards, because this is a democratic country. But in the name of that same value I also have the right not work with them. The editorial boards got the message and replaced their people. When the Washington Post saw that a smaller newspaper, such as the Baltimore Sun, was getting exclusive material, they understood that they had a problem."
Some of those who were ousted have come out ahead. Suzanne Goldberg was promoted to Washington, and the one reporter who made it big is Rula Amin. The famous Palestinian reporter for CNN whose reports from here in Operation Defensive Shield were perceived by many as being authored by the Palestinian Information Ministry, now reports from Baghdad and has a lot of screen time. Seaman tries to stay calm. "When the CNN executives visited here," he says, "they led us to understand that if we drop the issue of her, she would find herself on the way out. The fact that she is now in Baghdad attests to the professional level of the network and to the [value of] the word of its executives."
When the Kol Ha'Ir photographer asked to take Seaman's picture against the backdrop of a television screen, he agreed only if the television was turned to Fox, the cheaper alternative that the cable companies found to CNN. Seaman says he does not regret the impending loss. "Personally, I don't like CNN's broadcasts in Israel," he says, "because it is their European network.
If it were the American network maybe it would disturb me more." Foreign reporters and editors at the JCS building on Jaffa road in Jerusalem, where the offices of some of the leading foreign media services in the world are located, were rather stunned this week by Seaman's statements. "I cannot believe," says Charles Enderlin, "that Mr. Seaman, the director of the Government Press Office, would make those kinds of accusations. If that is how they want to do public relations here then I don't understand a thing about the country that I've been living in for the past 34 years."
Enderlin says that there were isolated instances of Palestinian pressure on local issues. He said that the Foreign Press Association in Israel found an appropriate response: "We decided that if a photographer from one of the networks captures a picture that the PA wants to confiscate then everyone is allowed to use it." Another senior journalist admits that some of the Palestinian journalists must naturally support the Palestinian national struggle, but he stresses that he encounters far more often displays of courage. "It is very difficult to produce free media in the territories today, but they succeed in doing that," says the journalist.
In response to this article, Tim Heritage, the bureau chief at Reuters, said "Seaman's accusations are absurd and baseless." Andrew Steele, the BBC Jerusalem bureau chief, said: "The BBC has an international reputation because of its objectivity and balance. The thought that a few of our more experienced journalists suddenly developed complete dependency on Palestinian sources and that the Palestinian workers decide which news will be broadcast abroad could be funny if it were not so insulting. It is even more infuriating when one bears in mind that Mr. Seaman's office has been barring press cards from our Palestinian staff members."